Welfare programs drive school cutsA number of free education and welfare policies were touted by aspiring politicians and city officials in the lead-up to the June 4 local elections, though since the polls, it appears that the reality has been far from what was promised.
Last month, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education slashed the budget for operational expenses - funding critical for schools to purchase class supplies and support extracurricular activities - cutting an average of 5 million won ($4,912) from each elementary, middle and high school in the city.
The government claimed the cuts were the only way to shrink an oversized budget, but experts worry that the reductions will minimize the overall quality of education.
A man who teaches an extracurricular course at a high school in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, said he felt guilty for the decreasing quality of his class. Subsidies for extracurricular activities at the school have consistently decreased over the past three years, and this year’s funding was just a third of what it was in 2013.
“Up until three years ago, we used to go on field trips, but now we don’t even have enough money to buy tools and other supplies,” he said. “It’s difficult to conduct the classes properly because [the education authority] doesn’t even give us minimum funding.”
Experts suggest the need for reductions resulted from both conservative and liberal candidates promoting too many free policies in order to win their campaigns.
The budget for the free school lunch policy, which began during Seoul Superintendent Kwak No-hyun’s term in 2011, for example, has increased from 116.2 billion won to 263.1 billion won. Additionally, the budget for after-school childcare classes jumped to 44.6 billion won, from 27.2 billion won last year, while funding for free education for preschoolers also increased from 478.2 billion won last year to 547.3 billion won this year.
“It is very difficult to revoke welfare policies,” said Song Gi-chang, an education professor at Sookmyung Women’s University. “Free education seems attractive at first, but it will eventually harm [the entire education system].”
Those most affected by the policies, however, will be students. At public schools, the budget for class materials this year is 11.4 billion won, down from 15.8 billion won last year, according to the Ministry of Education. The budget for school maintenance was also halved this year to 80.1 billion won, from 171.6 billion won last year.
Such tight financial conditions mean the availability of early retirements for teachers is limited as well. The budget related to early retirements for the latter half of this year was reduced to 66 billion won, much less than the 173.3 billion won allotted for the same period last year.
Educators were openly critical of the Seoul education authority’s announcement on Aug. 7 that it had accepted only 7.6 percent - or 181 teachers - of the 2,386 applications for early retirement in the latter half of this year.
Analysts also assert that too much focus on welfare policies may result in those in need being neglected.
According to a forum held last year by the Korean Society for the Economic Finance of Education, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education assigned 68.5 percent of its budget to welfare this year - a significant increase from the 28.3 percent allotted in 2013.
However, it reduced the amount budgeted to support children from disadvantaged families to 21.5 percent, down from 46.5 percent.
“The best policy now is not to expand any more welfare projects without a way to support them,” Song said.
BY KIM KI-HWAN AND SHIN JIN [firstname.lastname@example.org]